The Sight & Sound Top 50 Lacks Women But Is Cutting In It Analysis Of Cinema
By Alex Cranz
I tend to avoid European arthouse cinema (the catch all term for Germany and Frances’s New Wave and Italian Neorealism). I’m a populist at heart and when looking at classic cinema I tend to be drawn to the early days of filmmaking when the medium was so new every moment recorded seem to possess an innovation and filmmakers stumbled into telling great sweeping stories with heartbreaking intimacy. Give me the silent films of Germany in the 20s and Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s. Even the wuxia renaissance in China in the 2000s has something particularly “old fashion” in its appeal that draws me in more then the works of Fellini and Godard and Truffaut ever could.
When I look at Sight & Sound’s 2012 list of cinema’s greatest films my heart wavers just a bit. Clearly there’s a broad chasm of taste between my, perhaps folksy, preferences and those of the critics polled for the list. It’s a list that upon analysis would suggest that European arthouse cinema, collectively, is the most important movement in film to date. The films of early cinema that found their way onto the list are all critically important to the language of cinema we now speak, but their almost more vital to those European filmmakers of the 50s and 60s.
There are things to delight in on the list. Choices both observant and remarkable. 8 ½, 2001: Space Odyssey, and Citizen Kane all find themselves deservedly at the top of the list. Vertigo, Hitchcock’s prescient psychological thriller ranks number one for the first time, unseating Citizen Kane, which has held the spot for generations. Westerns find importance on the list. Between the works of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford you have the entirety of the genre on display. These two men created the western as we know it. First Ford with Stagecoach and John Wayne and then his shooting of what would become the quintessential American image, Monument Valley. Then Kurosawa with his digesting and distillation of the western’s archetypes and then back to Ford, who with Searchers brutally ripped the romanticism away from the genre and paved the way for Costner’s post-modern slogs and the whole of the spaghetti western scene. With just three films, The Searchers, Seven Samurai, and Rashomon the list manages to encapsulate an entire genre.
The musical does not fair as well and Singin’ in the Rain is asked to stand for a genre that is so critical to the artform as a whole that without it film might not be where it is today. As noted in Singin’ in the Rain, “talkies” only found success because of the musical. Seeing stars sing and dance and come to life on screen eased the concerns of theater owners and audiences a like. There was something magical the first time a man opened his mouth on screen and a song flew out. And I suppose Singin’ in the Rain as the genre’s only contribution makes sense. It’s story is meant as a history of the genre and the song and dance numbers seem to encompass a whole variety of forms, but…it seems like a “safe” choice. And where many of the films on the list are there because of their importance to creating the language of cinema Singin’ appears because it reflects that language.
But there’s one filmmaker I instantly noticed was missing. A woman who’s contributions to the form rival, and often prevail over those of many others on the list. Leni Riefenstahl is absent. Perhaps because her talent behind the camera was matched only by her voracious anti-semitism and Nazi sympathies. Her Nazi associations have sullied her films–apparently to the point that their substantial contributions to cinema are better ignored by the film critic elite.
Lois Weber is also missing. That makes more sense. Many of her films have been lost to time and many of those that remain are incomplete. She also tends to be a forgotten gem of early American cinema, frequently outshone in death, as she was in life, by consummate showman D.W. Griffith.
The only woman that does make it onto the list is the notoriously prickly Chantal Ackerman. Where Riefenstahl is famous for making the greatest propaganda film of all time and Weber for being one of the very first filmmakers to use film as a tool of social activism, Ackerman abhors the politicization of film. She refuses to have any of her films screened at LBGTQ film festivals despite queer subject matter and has made the cryptic claim that she doesn’t feel “women’s cinema exists.”
Her film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, tied Psycho, Metropolis and Sátántangó and came in at #35 on the list. It is often hailed as the first film truly articulating womanhood by feminists and for many critics, female and male, it’s considered the best film ever made by a woman.
And I’ve never seen it.
I feel disingenuous comparing her work to that of Riefenstahl and Weber. Nor can I compare it to my personal favorite “most womanly film ever” The Piano. In fact reading over the list I realized I could only personally comment on half of them.
That’s why over the next year I’ll be watching em>Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, along with every other available film on the list. Some, like Jean-Luc Godard’s television miniseries, Moments Choisis Des Historires Du Cinema will be skipped. Both because it is a total cheat to put a TV miniseries on there and because it isn’t actually available in the US. Others–films I have seen repeatedly, own and adored, will be viewed in the framework of their placement on the list. Once a week I’ll be looking at one film on the list. I’ll discuss the films’ contributions to cinema, the historical context in which they were made and reviewing them as the filthy populist. I’ll be working to open my mind to films I have often written off for their refusal to bow to the whims of traditional narrative structure. And working to find flaws in lower ranking films I perhaps find flawless.
For film lovers this list is king. It defines the art form we adore and for the next year I will be exploring these films relationship with history, and with us, the audience.|